About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, October 28, 2011

#92: Absurdistan

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart (New York: Random House, 2006)

"From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country.

"Open Absurdistan and meet outsize Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, lover of large portions of food and drink, lover and inept performer of rap music, and lover of a South Bronx Latina whom he longs to rejoin in New York City, if only the American INS will grant him a visa. But it won't, because Misha's late Beloved Papa whacked an Oklahoma businessman of some prominence. Misha is paying the price of exile from his adopted American homeland. He's stuck in Russia, dreaming of his beloved Rouenna and the Oz of NYC.

"Salvation may lie in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as Minister of Multicultural Affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.

"Populated by curvaceous brown-eyed beauties, circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews, a loyal manservant who never stops serving, and scheming oil execs from a certain American company whose name rhymes with Maliburton, Absurdistan is a strange, oddly true-to-life look at how we live now, from a writer who should know.

"With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today's literary world -- 'one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation,' according to The New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he gives an even funnier and wiser literary performance. In Misha Vainberg, he has invented a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of lost hope."

Opening Lines:
"This is a book about love. The next 338 pages are dedicated with that cloying Russian affection that passes for real warmth to my Beloved Papa, to the city of New York, to my sweet impoverished girlfriend in the South Bronx, and to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)."

My Take:
Very funny, but drags a bit in the middle once Vainberg gets stuck in the title republic.

I can't really overstate the first part. Absurdistan is crammed with wry, sometimes irreverent, usually hilarious observations about the United States, Russia, the former Soviet republics, and contemporary western culture. The reader gets an early taste of what she's in for in the first chapter, as Misha and college roommate Alyosha-Bob dine out in St. Petersburg with Misha's girlfriend Rouenna (visiting all too briefly from the South Bronx) and his very young stepmother, Lyuba. Observes Rouenna, on learning that Lyuba, too, was poor before marrying Misha's infamous, soon-to-be-murdered father Boris:
"[A]s far as I can tell, all of you Russians are just a bunch of n----z. ... All I'm saying is, you know ... your men don't got no jobs, everyone's always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y'all live in public housing."
After this dinner is interrupted by police who've come to tell Misha of his father's assassination, Misha reflects on his first trip to New York and how he met Rouenna (after an unfortunate encounter with the circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews mentioned on the dust jacket, which leaves the otherwise-unapologetic Misha with at least one thing to feel self-conscious about).

Rouenna remains in St. Petersburg for Boris's funeral, but returns to New York and Hunter College soon thereafter ... where Misha fears that she's getting a little too close with her writing professor (and his own former college classmate) Jerry Shteynfarb, a lothario of a "perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process" and who's still enjoying some degree of fame from his novel, The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job. (I never stopped chuckling at Shteyngart's dig at himself here.) His fears do indeed prove founded, though the rich and perhaps overly big-hearted Misha continues to pay Rouenna's tuition anyway.

Eventually, Misha comes to realize there's no way in heck he's going to get a U.S. travel visa through legitimate means. Even with his father dead, the whole murder thing's apparently still on his records, and the authorities aren't going to let Boris's son into the country, no way, no how. The only solution is to visit Absurdistan, where a crooked official at the Belgian consulate is reportedly selling Belgian passports for the asking (well, that and a goodly sum of cash).

Unfortunately, his timing couldn't be worse. Misha arrives in Svani City, and bribes his way through just about every airport and customs official he can find (in an eventually-tedious ritual where the Absurdi welcomes him with a speech like this:
"The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdisvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink."
... only to inform him, moments later, that "our mother is in the hospital with a collapsed liver and a keloid scar on the left ear" and a few generous U.S. dollars would be much appreciated, and by the way, let me now introduce you to my colleague in the visa application line. Shortly after he settles into the penthouse suite at the Park Hyatt and gets his shiny new Belgian passport in hand, the Absurdi leader's plane is shot down, and the national borders sealed. Aside from seeing a decent young activist shot to death before his eyes, this doesn't make much difference in Misha's day-to-day life; the high-end food and drink seem to keep flowing at the Park Hyatt (and pretty much anywhere there are Haliburton staff), and his new (ahem) friendship with Nana Nanabragovna, daughter of a local warlord-cum-businessman ensures that he'll always have the best of whatever there is for the taking ... but, well, he still can't leave.

From here on, as noted above, the book seems to drag a bit. There are still plenty of apt and humorous observations, which keeps it readable, but not much happens, either in terms of visible action or in Misha's state of mind. Sure, I chuckled at the apparent feud between the two
ethnic groups in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani, which seems to center on which direction the footrest should tilt on their version of the cross, and at the ridiculous but spot-on rap lyrics Misha's so fond of quoting, but that only takes you so far. I'll probably still read The Russian Debutante's Handbook if I can get my hands on it, but would have liked a stronger wrap-up to the story line here.

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